Criterion Sunday 467: 愛の亡霊 Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion, 1978)

This ghost story doesn’t have the frisson of controversy that many of Oshima’s other films (it immediately follows his most sensational, In the Realm of the Senses, and has a similar title in the original), but it certainly does look gorgeous. It’s ostensibly a story about a man wronged (Takahiro Tamura) who returns to haunt his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji), but really it is much more about the wife and the way that she is first assaulted by and then lured into a love tryst with a disreputable young man (though the actors aren’t so far apart in their actual age) in 1890s Japan. There’s a fundamental unhappiness at the heart of all their actions, but then again they live a meagre life, he a rickshaw puller and her making ends meet as a lowly servant to a grand home. Like a lot of ghost stories, there’s a great deal of expressive use of the dark, and plenty of grime and filth too, though it’s not exactly scary. It’s more about internal strife and an inchoate desire for something else, some other way of living, some kind of connection with emotion that seems to motivate the woman, and the film’s central tragedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Itoko Nakamura 中村糸子; Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也, Kazuko Yoshiyuki 吉行和子, Takahiro Tamura 吉行和子; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 13 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 466: 愛のコリーダ Ai no Korida (aka L’Empire des sens) (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976)

Truly, the ‘is it art or is it pornography’ debate is the most boring and irrelevant lines of discussion regarding this film. It certainly does intend to push boundaries, but it’s a film about primarily a sexual relationship, about two people who are inescapably, tragically drawn to one another and so they do spend a lot of their time at it. The filmmaking never feels exploitative though or even prurient, but its clear that as the story goes on and as (in the background) Japan becomes more militarised and drawn towards war, things take on a frantic and slightly dangerous note in their sex. The whole thing is gorgeously staged and filmed, and the leads are compelling to watch, even if they’re just mooching about at home, doing little more than drinking and fvcking, but it’s doomy and evocative, a fascinating way into a peculiar time period where everything looks set to break apart.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Cinematographer Hideo Ito 伊東英男; Starring Eiko Matsuda 松田暎子, Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2001).

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)

Finishing off my week of films I saw at Wellington’s recent French Film Festival is this recent release, which went swiftly into the cinemas and I think has probably done quite well, presumably based on the lead actor’s profile in Call My Agent! (which is certainly where I know her from). I hadn’t realised Robert Louis Stevenson had been a pioneer of hiking, or had links with this area of France, but that was one of the things I learned from this otherwise rather silly (but fun) movie.


Did Balthazar truly die so that Patrick could take a walk with Laure Calamy in the Cévennes? I was all ready to be snarky and dismissive along those lines, but actually this is quite a sweet and even rather funny film in which Calamy basically reprises her role as Noémie in the TV show Call My Agent! but as the titular Antoinette, lovestruck over a married man and barely holding herself together at times, but finding through her journey an inner resilience (nurtured by a growing bond with Patrick the donkey, etc. etc.). I mean, it should all be unwatchable really, but Calamy (a bit like Jane Krakowski on US TV shows like 30 Rock) has a gift at imbuing what seem like shallow caricatures with an inner humanity. She’s introduced as a teacher changing at the back of her classroom into a spangly dress to lead her kids in a rendition of a thematically very inappropriate and slightly gothy song to a group of parents, while winking at what we all assume is her boyfriend, but turns out to be the (married) parent of one of her children, and when he heads off for a holiday with his family, foolishly decides to secretly stalk him. It’s the pure sociopathic stuff of romcoms, but as ever is negotiated largely through having such a likeable lead. Basically, it shouldn’t really work, but it does.

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Caroline Vignal (based on the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson); Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Côte; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.

Sous le ciel d’Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)

Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.


I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.

Sous le ciel d'Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)CREDITS
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

In the Heights (2021)

Turns out this adaptation of a stage musical (one written by Lin-Manuel Miranda from before he did Hamilton, and which I saw a production of in London) turned out not to be the big success it expected to be, and that’s a shame because there’s a lot that’s good and worth celebrating about it. I can’t comment on the lack of Afro-Latinx representation but just at a filmic level, it’s fun and watchable and everyone is giving it their all (as any musical should).


One of the best things about this big Summer blockbuster (or at least I hope it is) may be that the only community I can consider myself a part of in this film is here unquestionably the bad guys — a fairly well-meaning gentrifying ‘organic laundry’ operator, and (surely the worst of all) an estate agent. But that’s fine because we don’t always need to see ourselves in characters on-screen — though it’s difficult not to identify with some of the struggles these kids go through — but if others hear their voices and see themselves represented in this melange of Latinx identities, then I get the sense that this is librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes’s) point. And while it at times alludes to some negative stories (being racially profiled at Stanford is a key emotional beat for one of the lead characters; there’s a deadbeat dad, too), it instead embraces all the positivity and possibility of change in a brightly-coloured and carefully choreographed world of bodegas and heat that has some superficial similarities to, say, Do the Right Thing while imparting a specifically Bronx (rather than Brooklyn) vibe. Residents of the area will be best placed to say whether it speaks to them, and even though the ending feels a bit rushed and perfunctory (a magically inspiring fashion show of sorts leading to life changes), it’s not really about where it goes than how it gets there and even if Miranda’s shtick is getting a bit wearying, there’s enough going for this that I let myself go and went with it for two hours.

In the Heights (2021)CREDITS
Director Jon M. Chu; Writers Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on the stage musical by Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda); Cinematographer Alice Brooks; Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 444: Le Plaisir (1952)

This is a film of three stories, though the first and third are rather brief and function more to introduce and close out the themes of the film, about pleasure of course (the title is clue to that at least), but pleasure as it’s intermingled with various more fleeting things like ageing and death. That first sequence, in focusing on a grand ball, also introduces us to Ophüls’ favoured camera style that loves decadence and the drama of a set combined with the elegant choreography of both bodies and camera in space. That said, for all his gliding camera work, much of it settles down in the longer central segment to deal with a group of women (prostitutes it would appear, not that we see anything so uncouth as coitus) on a group trip to the countryside to celebrate the madam’s niece’s first Communion. In that respect, it already breaks our expectations of prostitutes in film, but the simple bucolic charms of the country and their presence there neatly dovetail with the exploitation (if not unhappiness, so far as we see) back at work. There’s a sub rosa commentary on patriarchal society that runs through all three stories, of an older man desperate to regain his youth (and the youthful affairs that went with it), and an artist who objectifies a model he falls in love with in the third story, along with the women of the central section, free from the tawdry expectations of the men who habitually surround them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the short stories “Le Masque”, “La Maison Tellier” and “Le Modèle” by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographers Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras; Starring Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Simone Simon, Jean Servais; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Monday 28 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 443: La Ronde (1950)

A typically elegant Max Ophüls film that luxuriates in that fin de siècle Viennese atmosphere, fully revels in it indeed as Anton Walbrook leads us as viewer through the various pairings, addressing the camera, changing costumes and acknowledging the artifice of what began as a play by strolling past film cameras and even at one point “censoring” a scene by snipping the celluloid. This could of course come across as altogether too arch, but it feels like a way of making the material — which concerns a series of sexual trysts between various members of Viennese society — somehow more refined than a simple recounting of the plot might suggest. Perhaps if anything it’s just a little too sophisticated for such frolics, but it holds itself so elegantly, with a gliding camera and the glow of the lights, that I can forgive it its longueurs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the play Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Serge Reggiani, Danielle Darrieux, Jean-Louis Barrault; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999).

Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Talentime (2009)

Part of my own relationship with Netflix is not just to watch the mediocre romcoms it seems to endlessly generate, or the addictively trashy TV shows like Selling Sunset (for which I can effectively turn off my brain), but also to actively search out films directed by women, or from places or film cultures I’m less familiar with, which is how I got to this Malaysian film. Director Yasmin Ahmad died unexpectedly from a stroke at age 51, the same year this film was released, but she has an intriguing career, including studying politics in Newcastle, employed variously as a banker, a marketing exec, and an advertising director but also — and, inevitably, I quote Wikipedia — “she moonlighted as a blues singer and pianist by night”. I want to know more about that! Anyway, her last film is pretty good, and a few other ones are on Netflix too, so probably worth checking out.


Despite the English language title, this is a Malay film about a school’s talent competition, apparently a national series (whether in real life or within the world of the film). Indeed, part of the film is just dealing with the actual range of languages and cultures that exist in Malaysia (whether the broad Yorkshire accent of one grandmother, the Indian family with their deaf son Mahesh, the Chinese Muslim maid who is initially discriminated against by a posh Malay relation, and every other permutation of background).

I get the feeling that Malaysian viewers will get a lot more out of this in terms of references, but it still resonates because the story is pretty easy to relate to, being one in which a number of different school kids are going through their own family dramas (most notably Mahesh as mentioned above, but also Melur and Hafiz, the last of whom has a dying mother in hospital), but who all pull together at the talent competition. There are moments when this threatens to be a mawkish TV movie but mostly it avoids that by not overexplaining the situations and just letting the emotional moments linger quietly. It’s the last film by its director before her own untimely death, and she has a deft touch at delineating all these characters and finding a way to unite them despite everything.

Talentime (2009)CREDITS
Director/Writer Yasmin Ahmad; Cinematographer Keong Low; Starring Mahesh Jugal Kishor, Pamela Chong, Mohd Syafie Naswip; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 11 March 2021.